Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Turandot – opera in three acts (1926)
Calaf, the Unknown Prince (tenor) – Jonas Kaufmann
Princess Turandot, his daughter (soprano) – Sondra Radvanovsky
Liù, a young slave girl (soprano) – Ermonela Jaho
Timur, his aged father, exiled king of Tartary (bass) – Michele Pertusi
Emperor Altoum of China (tenor) – Michael Spyres
Ping, the Grand Chancellor (baritone) – Mattia Olivieri
Pang, the General Purveyor (tenor) – Gregory Bonfatti
Pong, the Chief Cook (tenor) – Siyabonga Maqungo
Prince of Persia (tenor) – Francesco Toma
A Mandarin (baritone) – Michael Monfidian
Orchestra, Coro e Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. 2022, Parco della Musica, Rome
Warner Classics 5419740659 [2CDs: 128]
It is so rare nowadays to have a new, starrily cast studio opera recording, especially one of a mainstream work such as Turandot, that this set has already excited much interest. That its release coincides with Antonio Pappano conducting the work for the first time at Covent Garden in March 2023, as well as containing the alternative and original Alfano conclusion rather than the more “traditional, Toscanini-ised” version, has prompted even further interest.
In my conspectus on Turandot and in spite of considering nearly forty recordings, made in the studio and captured live, as well as on DVD, it was difficult not to still conclude that the Decca recording, released fifty years ago in 1973, is still the most recommendable version available, with no weak links in the cast, fine sound and excitingly conducted by the young Zubin Mehta. A cynic may well conclude that by utilising the different ending that this new recording wisely avoids such a head-on comparison, even if that is only of the final quarter of an hour or so of the opera – and in any case, the original conclusion has been recorded rather well previously as a standalone scene, also by Decca, featuring Josephine Barstow and the forces of Scottish Opera, conducted by John Mauceri. Such is the challenge facing any new opera recording of Turandot – the question is, do Pappano and his company rise to that challenge?
Most people reading this review will know the story of the opera, of a Chinese Princess who consents to marry only a man of royal blood who is able to answer successfully three riddles in a game of Russian roulette, Chinese-style, where any wrong answer results in death. The princess’s ice-cold glamour and beauty attracts many suitors, all of whom fail until Calaf, the deposed Prince of Tartary, accepts the challenge and is successful, much to the joy of the people of Peking and horror of the princess. She begs her father to be released from the oath, but is refused, so Calaf offers her his own riddle – ‘discover my name by dawn and my life is yours and you are released from the oath.’ To this end, Turandot’s guards arrest and torture an old man and a young girl, Timur, his father, and Liù, a slave, who had been seen with Calaf earlier. In order to save the old king’s pain and because of her love for Calaf, Liù confesses that only she knows the name of the prince, but kills herself in front of Turandot so she cannot divulge it. It is an important point in the opera, as it begins the icy Princess’s thaw, as she starts to understand the meaning of love, as well as the moment when Puccini died, leaving the final scene incomplete. At its premiere in 1926, some two years after Puccini’s death, Toscanini conducted a completed version by Franco Alfano, which sees Calaf win over the Icy Princess and, with the corpse of Liù still warm, the opera ends to universal rejoicing at the union of Turandot and Calaf. It is a solution that has never been regarded as either satisfactory musically, or dramatically, and was one of the reasons why Antonio Pappano had never conducted the work until the recording sessions in 2022.
At his death, Puccini left thirty-six pages of sketches for the final scene, containing occasional hints of melody and orchestration, but with much missing. He had hoped that Riccardo Zandonai would complete the work, but after objections from Puccini’s son, Franco Alfano was eventually chosen, since his own opera La leggenda di Sakùntala was similar to Turandot both in setting and heavyweight orchestration. His first draft of the completion was severely criticised by Toscanini, ostensibly since he had the temerity to orchestrate some of the passages where Puccini had left no instructions and even added a few lines of his own to the libretto, which was considered incomplete even by Puccini. He was therefore forced to submit a revised version that followed Puccini’s sketches with a narrow-minded dogmatism which meant that some of the libretto was subsequently omitted, merely since Puccini had left no indication of how he wanted it to sound; it is this version that is most commonly heard today.
There is no doubt that the conclusion of this opera is problematic; a happy ending so soon after the self-sacrifice of the slave girl is about as dramatically knuckleheaded as having Isolde contentedly walk off stage on the arm of King Mark after her Liebestod, as well as being in as much bad taste as having a love duet between Pinkerton and Kate, cradling their new son, after the suicide of Butterfly – except that is exactly what happens. Composition sketches indicate that Puccini was having the same doubts and was clearly struggling to find a suitable ending. Had he lived, maybe between him and his librettists, a different conclusion may have been worked out – after all, it took three significant revisions after failed live performances before Madama Butterfly became the work we are familiar with today. In addition, there are sketches indicating that the composer was considering composing a revised ending for La rondine at his death, one that ends with the suicide of Magda/Paulette rather than her walking away on the arm of her rich ‘protector’ Rambaldo and abandoning her lover Ruggero (that potential revised ending has indeed been staged in the US by the director Marta Domingo).
However, this is all conjecture – the issue at hand is how different is the original Alfano ending from the more common Toscanini-ised version we are familiar with today. Indeed, the ending is fleshed out considerably, Alfano clearly taking his cue for the final scene from the very opening chords of the work, where the two unrelated keys of C-sharp major and D minor are superimposed in an attempt to evoke the executioner’s falling axe, as the three chords which open the final scene seem to echo. The additional passages seem to be orchestrated from the same cloth and lend the music a more savage and barbaric hue than the more familiar version. It is difficult, too, to understand quite why Toscanini would think the revised version preferable, not just since much of the libretto, which helps explain Turandot’s actions, was omitted, but (and in particular) the final chorus, for which Puccini just left some vague mention of the reprise of Calaf’s third act aria, is now the toe-curlingly banal ‘Let’s-hear-it-from-y’all-one-more-time: Nessun dorma’, instead of Alfano’s inspired adaption of it, which finds both Turandot and Calaf soaring above the chorus on the word “amor”. To my mind, it is musically vastly superior to the completion by Luciano Berio, which sounds as if Calaf and Turandot have wandered into the soundworld of Wozzeck, which was premiered the year before.
This new recording allows us then to hear the original conclusion for the first time as part of a complete performance, rather than the standalone torso featured on the Barstow-Decca final scenes album. Recorded in the summer of 2022 under Covid restrictions that saw the chorus needing to stand two metres apart and with the orchestra spread out over the enlarged Santa Cecilia concert hall stage, which had the soloists standing in between the orchestra and chorus, there is no compromise in the sound that is wonderfully resplendent and clear. Indeed, some may find that the orchestra is recorded a little too close when compared to the singers, but since this is an opera by Puccini, I am not complaining.
If Sir Antonio Pappano had never conducted this opera before the recording was made, it matters not a jot when he brings all his considerable experience of the opera house to bear with his conducting in this recording. He is especially good at telling the story with his baton, which is evident as early as the opening pages with the chorus’s responses to the Mandarin reading the laws of the land, which are thrillingly involved and alive to the action, as they are in their proclamations during the Riddle Scene. He is also particularly good at evoking the majesty of Ancient China, be that whenever the Princess appears on the scene, or with the massive chords which punctuate the Emperor’s initial exchanges with Calaf. Needless to say, he conducts the final scene with great commitment, although – and somewhat to my surprise – it is Mauceri who captures the greater sense of blazing discovery with his standalone recording of the final scene only on Decca.
That said, he is treated to a starry cast, especially in today’s parsimonious times. Indeed, it may be of some surprise to many to see the name of the forty-two-year-old Michael Spyres singing the role of the Emperor, which is usually reserved for a cameo appearance by some great from the past (in the 1987 live recording on DVD from the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine cast the eighty-five-year-old Hugues Cuénod in the role, giving him his debut in New York). Spyres is unable to disguise the fact that his is a young voice, but his exchanges with Calaf are most entertaining and he certainly conveys the Emperor’s exasperation at all the blood being spilt merely for the hand of a princess. The trio of government ministers, Mattia Olivieri, Gregory Bonfatti and Siyabonga Maqungo, aided and abetted by Pappano’s colourful conducting, make a characterful bunch, while no-one can have any grumbles with any of the other minor roles.
One who may have reason to grumble though is the Timur of Michele Pertusi, who is not afforded the usual honour of his name on the front cover as befitting most of the previous deposed kings of Tartary. Alas, although he articulates the text cleanly, his tone is grey and woolly and cannot be counted a success.
As his slave-girl, Ermonela Jaho’s is presented as more womanly and fuller-toned than usual, her voice having hints of darker hues, with a hint of contralto. She is certainly most involved in the action, but she does not banish memories of previously great Liùs on record, lacking the fragility of Schwarzkopf, the sweetness of Barbara Hendricks, the nobility and pure tones of Margaret Price, or the frankly astonishing breath control of Caballé on the legendary Decca-Mehta recording, to name just a handful of my favourites. Hers is a fine appraisal, just not a great one.
Reviews of the concert performances that took place the week following the recording sessions were overwhelmingly positive, but did add one caveat about Jonas Kaufmann. In particular, it was noted how his voice sounded “gutteral, small and lack[ing in] squillo” (Mauricio Villa, Operawire, 30 March 2022), often failing to be heard at all (for example, for long stretches of the ensemble which closes the end of Act I). Certainly, those listeners used to the sweetness of Björling, the charisma of Corelli and the panache of Pavarotti in this role may not initially react positively to Kaufmann’s smokier, baritonal tenor, although thanks to recording engineers, or otherwise, he is thankfully present in the sound-picture throughout the recording. His is a sensitive portrayal of Calaf, often singing very softly with smooth legato, even if he comes dangerously close to crooning in parts of ‘Non piangere, Liù‘ and sounding mannered as a result. That said, he does not duck any of the high notes, unlike the more golden-toned Plácido Domingo on the Karajan recording. For me, once again it is a fine, rather than great assumption.
The Turandot of Sondra Radvanovsky reveals all her credentials at her entrance with ‘In questa reggia’ which is both commanding, as well as, crucially, having a hint of warmth too. In particular, she is especially observant of Puccini’s dynamic instructions in this aria, something many sopranos disregard, powering through the music like air-raid sirens – for me this is important, as it gives hints that this Icy Princess is capable of thawing even at this point in the opera, which then lends credence to Calaf’s belief he can persuade her to love him. It is a delicate balancing act of fire and ice, rage and vulnerability, which if you observe the piano markings too exaggeratedly (as Montserrat Caballé did on her EMI recording in 1977) can sound mannered. Radvanovsky sails through the test with aplomb, as she does later on, riding the orchestra majestically at the climax of ‘Figlio del cielo’. In my opinion, this is another of the current century’s great Turandot portrayals to set alongside those of Lise Lindstrom and Alessandra Marc.
The accompanying booklet contains a brief essay by Antonio Pappano in English, French and German, plus full libretto with translations, which is useful in light of the different ending being used than usual. There is no synopsis, but the tracking is copious, fifty-seven in total, with a bonus track of a standalone ‘Nessun Dorma’. This release is available as both hard copy compact disc, as well as the usual download formats, but care must be taken with the mp3 issue where the sound is very one-dimensional, especially in the grand choral scenes.
Overall, if I still believe the correct “starter-kit” for Turandot to be the Decca-Mehta recording released half a century ago this year, along with the standalone torso of the original Alfano final scene with Barstow and John Mauceri also on Decca, there is no denying that this new recording of Turandot is a fine entry to that opera’s discography; anyone purchasing it will not be disappointed.
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